Below is a response I gave to Ethical Travel Magazine’s questions about security for my forth coming trip to Festival in The Desert and The Carvan Of Peace.
1) Safety, specifically my precautions.
Safety, when it comes to traveling the road less travelled, lies PRIMARILY with local knowledge and experience.
Take health. If you are seriously injured when travelling your best chance of survival lies in finding a local solution quickly. You need the people looking after you knowing how to care for you, find a local doctor and if possible organise your transport. Only in the most extreme of circumstances would your first port of call be the insurance company. Of course you need the insurance in extremis, and no one should travel without full personal travel insurance, but when you travel, wherever you are going beit to the USA, the UK or Cameroon, but especially when you are off the beaten track, your first line of defence is local. Only if all local options are impossible or too risky would you consider the medical evacuation option.
When you get to the doctor he or she can best diagnose your problem if he has specific information about what happened, what are your symptoms and some of your medical history.
Your best chances of survival have depended on local solutions and specific knowledge. Your insurance is your emergency back up.
It is similar for security.
Being warned that terrorists target airplanes and airports does nothing for our security. We can’t not fly. This sort of travel advice just induces fear. Air is still the safest form of travel. But there is a risk.
Being warned that a bomb can be made out of only 100ml of liquid gives security staff something concrete to work on and gaurd against, and this makes us safer.
With travel security, being told that: “There is a high risk of terrorist attack, and attacks can be indiscriminate”, which has been the FCO’s line on most west African countries for 3-4 years now, tells the traveller nothing. All terrorist attacks are indescriminate and therefore anywhere can have one.
This was the advice on the Mauritanian page before my first trip to that country in 2007-8. I googled terrorist incidents/attacks in Mauritania and didn’t find one. Since this Mauritania has had 2 or 3 incidents spread over a country twice the size of France that could be ascribed as “terrorist”. If we compare this to any major western country how can this be described as “high risk”?
Worse than this advice being unhelpful, it actually endangers the traveller. When people become used to generalised advice, they no longer pay attention, and the cry wolf syndrome kicks in.
My precautions on the Festival In the Desert and Caravan Of peace trip, as ever, are my local contacts, my local guides and drivers, my local knowledge and experience of the specific regions through which the caravan will pass. (See below)
I may also have armed guards hired from the local military accompanying my group if concern justifies it. This is just a final precaution – really window dressing. If I felt I needed an armed guard. I would cancel the trip. But say the unthinkable happened, it provides a last line of defence and makes people feel safer perhaps. The equivalent of having an armed guard on a plane.
2) What would you want travellers to know about the situation?
Firstly that I wont run any trip if i have doubts about security. In all my 25 years experience of travelling in Africa I have had one incident when I felt out of control of my secuirty and I never want to go there again.
If a region is unsafe, you will be warned well in advance and authorities – military and police – will not let you pass.
How my experience and local contacts direct my assessment of the true security risks.
I have seven years of knowledge and experience of being responsible for other travellers in this region.
I have a 100% record of safety and success in calculating correctly the risks of taking people “down the road less travelled” and since 2008 this has included going to the north of Mali before it was impossible to go there (since 2009 authorities in Mali have not allowed tourists north of Gao).
This experience has enabled me to judge the reality of the security situation by what I see and feel to be the case on the ground.
Although the islamist invasion has increased insecurity concerns for the local people, it has arguably made travel for tourists safer in the region outside of the north, where the caravan takes place, because authorities are on the alert and the focus of the bad guys is on holding their territory. If there was any risk outside of their territory it would be to military forces, more than tourists.
Moreover they already have 10 or so hostages whom European governments are understanding that it does not help to pay their ransoms, so their motive to take hostages has been removed? There is no real ideological purpose behind the kidnappings, and with all govenments now following the same line on ransoms, the market has dried up.
I have recently been to Mauritania, south Mali and Burkina Faso – the route of the caravan – and have seen for myself the security situation on the ground . I felt as safe in Bamako and throughout my journey across the region as I have always felt. In Bamako the usual friendliness and openness on the streets and the lack of the need for an overt display of military to control a population who effectively have no government, tells me that Bamako is safe.
Of course the random risk is always there.
The history of the security warnings around the Festival in the Desert.
The Festival in the Desert has had travel warnings placed on it by western governments every year since 2009. Every year the Festival has gone ahead despite the warnings. Why? Because local authorities and the festival organisers knew that there was no threat to the festival, that these bandits could only attack in remote areas away from the high military presence that is always there for Mali’s biggest international event.
Every year I have explained to my group the situation and, after they have got a feeling for the country, 100% of my tourists have opted to go on to the festival. Every year it has been a great success without even a sniff of a problem.
But every year, as western governments ratchet up the fear, more operators pull out, more tourists decide not to go, more local people lose their yearly income, and more young men are given less employment opportunities to the extent that they are tempted by so called Al Qaeda groups to accept €300 as a monthly wage to feed their families. So in the long run, western government travel advice policy has exacerbated the situation.
Last year I ran a trip to the Festival In The Desert in Timbuktu a month after 3 tourists were kidnapped from Timbuktu. I did not run this trip out of a bullish stance against the big beards or to prove a point or to cash in on my bookings – I could have offered an equivalent trip and possibly saved money. I was going on my experience of the recent history of security issues in the region and my knowledge of the reality of the security situation around Timbuktu and the festival site. I ran the trip because of the virtual impossibility of an attack.
Up to now the kidnappings have been carried out by bandits and then the captives are sold onto the islamists groups. These bandits did not have the strength or motivation or devotion to the cause to risk their own deaths. To capture a tourist at the festival In the desert they would have to:
1) manage to dodge military surveillance from the air and lines of armoured vehicles patrolling the desert around the festival site.
2) If they did mange to enter the festival site unchallenged, they’d have to find a tourist (under 10% of the crowd and falling) and get back out beyond the same lines of military.
3) They’d then have 1000 kms of desert to cross without the military vehicles or planes catching them up.
The odds were not great. They are certainly not the “high risk” we are told of.
How my trip to the Caravan Of Peace will support the community?
The main benefit to the people will come from seeing others from foreign lands coming to join them in their time of crisis. For all Malians, Tuareg, Bambara, Bozo, Fulani, Songai and Dogon the stranger is the most valued in the community. On my recent trip to Mali a Tuareg friend in Bamako, who works for the ministry of tourism, said to me: “When there are no tourists it is like you have your eyes closed, no one sees your soul, you are alone”
To discuss how my trip to the caravan of peace will help local people, and the Tuareg in particular, perhaps we could start with the fact that I have not abandoned them and that in bringing people to the caravan I am highlighting their plight and most importantly trading with them.
Of course I am also employing people too. For Mamayiti my Timbuktu guide, his sister and her eldest daughter, all in refugee camps in Burkina Faso, employment on my trip will bring in much needed cash and break the tedium and misery of being exiled from home; for Mohammed my driver who is currently dodging joining any groups in Gao, Djeneba my cook from Mopti, Amadou and Vieux my pinasse river boat drivers, it will provide the only employment they have had since my last group trip to Mali in January.
All of these people have been helped this year to get through their crisis from my “Mali Displaced families Fund” on my web site: https://www.fromhere2timbuktu.com/about-us/fh2t-community-fund
Amadou my fixer in Bamako will delight in the work he gets as business has been slow even for someone who has other channels of work.
I have on going community support schemes, including a school in the desert between Aguelhoc and Tessalit which I have never been able to visit as our friends Al Qaeda In The Islamic Magreb (AQIM) have been camped up nearby since 2009. So I have a motive to get rid of them!